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What’s up with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang?

After several high profile misses, the Arsenal captain is under the spotlight.

Arsenal v Newcastle United - Premier League Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

This year wasn’t supposed to be like this for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. When he signed his contract extension a season ago, the thought process was that the first season of the contract extension, this season, would still see the best of Aubameyang. Next season and the last, his age 33 and 34 seasons, might not be pretty. Of course, last season wasn’t supposed to go as it did, where Aubameyang scored the fewest amount of league goals in a decade. There were mitigating factors: Aubameyang’s mother was ill, the captain himself contracted malaria, and there were disciplinary issues. There was also the small matter of a terrible attacking Arsenal side.

While Arsenal’s attack is better this season, the volume of chance creation is still inadequate. As a team, Arsenal are 11th in xG, though 6th in shots per game. Any discussion of Aubameyang must acknowledge that point, especially as, whether playing wide or through the middle, Aubameyang is not going to create much, nor contribute much to build-up play, as he’s a low-touch player.

In terms of metrics, Aubameyang is roughly similar to his output the last two seasons: at .48 xG/90, he matches his output from 2019/20 and 2020/21, while he is taking slightly more shots than last season and slightly fewer than the 2019/20 season. Both metrics are dwarfed by his output during the 2018/19 campaign, and his first half-season in English football.

This tracks with what we can see on the pitch: Aubameyang is not really receiving the ball in that different positions than at various points last season. One difference is that Aubameyang is no longer playing on the left, which means he is, by definition, less involved: he’s not receiving passes on the left from Granit Xhaka and the left back by the touchline. But in central areas, and playing as the center forward, he’s essentially picking the ball up in the same areas:

In many ways, Aubameyang is the same player he always has been. Arsenal don’t create many chances on the counter attack, where Aubameyang can utilize his pace, and they create even fewer chances from cutbacks, where Aubameyang utilizes his exceptional movement to sniff out chances. Ultimately, Aubameyang’s struggles are largely down to Arsenal’s style of play, and while Aubameyang has had periods of play where he’s been able to pick out chances from the edge of the box, his bread and butter has always been in the penalty box.

While Aubameyang’s scoring record isn’t great, nor, really, is anyone else: Lacazette came into the team, and didn’t score a goal as a starter. Martin Ødegaard has one goal this season, Nicolas Pépé hasn’t scored in the Premier League since May, and Bukayo Saka only has two goals. Only Emile Smith Rowe is really exceeding expectations in terms of goals, and thus, it seems Aubameyang, much like Arsenal’s other attacking players, is suffering from the lack of chances created. He has always missed sitters, but his super-power has been finding two or three big chances a game. But if Arsenal don’t create them, Aubameyang can’t really sniff them out.

Arteta gave Aubameyang a new contract, and Arteta may be regretting that. It is only in the last few months where Arteta has consistently utilized Aubameyang as a centre forward, and it’s fairly clear that Arteta values the type of forward play that Lacazette brings: a sort of stickability, and link-up play. Aubameyang can do that, and has, but it is not his natural game, and there is some tension in Arsenal’s attacking play as a result. It is a tension that Arteta is going to have to resolve: either by enabling Arsenal to create more chances, or, by finding a centre forward in the market that better suits what he wants.